Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Why I, a dinosaur paleontologist, am excited about Jurassic World

Let me first get something out of the way. I know many of my colleagues will disagree with me on this post. That is perfectly fine. This seems to be a major point of contention among most of my paleo-colleagues. But I’m here to take the side that is not the norm among us paleontologists. The “holy shit I’m excited about this movie because it is a freaking dinosaur movie” side. Here’s why.

Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park
First of all, think about every single dinosaur movie that has ever come out. Jurassic Park (1, 2, and 3), Land Before Time, Disney’s Dinosaur, and Walking with Dinosaurs just to name a few. None of them have had much in the way of scientific accuracy in their time. Here are a few examples:

Land Before Time: 1) Those dinosaurs didn’t live together at the same time. 2) All of the names of the dinosaurs like “long-neck”. 3) Why the hell did Cera, a "three-horn", not have three horns, but other babies younger than her in other chapters did?
Cera from Land Before Time
Jurassic Park: 1) ALL OF THE DINOSAURS ARE WAY TOO F-ING BIG. Note Brachiosaurus’ head in the tree scene. 2) Dilophosaurus spitting venom. 3) The whole frog DNA thing (WTF?). 4) Velociraptor being too big with the wrong wrists (Note: they INTENDED to make Velociraptor much bigger than is scintifically accurate. They just got lucky because Utahraptor was found after they had already decided to increase the size. 5) Tyrannosaurus not being able to see if you don’t move. 6) Pretty much most other things about the dinosaurs in that movie besides anatomical posture.

Disney’s Dinosaur: 1) Many of the dinosaurs did not live together. 2) They talked/had lips.
Iguanodon in Disney's Dinosaur with lips.

Walking with Dinosaurs: They talked. (I thought this was great, but many, many of my colleagues disagreed.)

People say that a good thing about the original Jurassic Park was that it presented the latest science of how the animals would have looked to the public. But honestly, that is not true at all.

Think about it. There were only SEVEN dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park. Seven. And five of them barely got even four minutes of screen time altogether! That leaves TWO DINOSAURS. Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Two horrifying theropod dinosaurs, one of which (Velociraptor) had so many things wrong with it in the first place (on purpose) that it had hardly any scientific value. It’s a monster movie with very few other random dinosaurs trickled in. That’s all.

These movies were never meant to be ENTIRELY scientifically accurate. Not even in the beginning. We tend to sensationalize the original Jurassic Park so much that we forget how horrible it was scientifically even for its time. Also, people tend to rag on the second and third Jurassic Parks. I personally loved the second one because of its diversity. Not to mention Triceratops was a badass terrorizing an entire campsite in it, whereas it was sick and pathetic in the first movie. I even kind of liked the story in the second one (aside from the whole T. rex taking over San Diego thing…), but I digress…
Triceratops in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World tearing shit up like a badass.
This brings me to the whole issue with the raptors not having feathers in the new Jurassic World movie. People have been all up in arms about the non-inclusion of a feathered body. My opinion still stands. They didn’t have feathers in the original and any kind of line that would allow them to put feathers on dinosaurs would be cheap at best. It is not the way Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs were made. It is not what people are expecting. When you see other monster movies, do you want them to change the way the monsters look in sequels? No. Keep in mind most of the people watching this movie already have a set image of what they want the dinosaurs to look like. Hollywood always takes public’s expectations into account. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it works. Yes, it is unfortunate that we are showing less than accurate dinosaurs to the public, but it’s our job to teach them otherwise, just as it has always been ever since the first movie
Velociraptor in Jurassic Park 3
Also, as another point, we have no idea about feather type in Utahraptor. We’ve never seen them preserved. “Has feathers” is not science. We don’t know what the feathers looked like, plain and simple. It is not scientific accuracy if we cannot portray feathers with accuracy, be it size, shape, type, or color. Therefore we would STILL have arguments about it and people would complain and yadda yadda. Also, I’m not going to go into the whole genetically-engineered new dinosaur issue. That was their own call for the plot. Not that I agree with it because dinosaurs are way cool and horrifying how they were in the first place--but hey, Hollywood. I’ll let it go.

I grew up around theater kids and movie buffs (who, by the way, mostly agree that Jurassic Park was one of the greatest movies of all time). Continuity is a big thing to them and THAT is what most people always argue about in movie plots. Not the way a frog-engineered dinosaur looks on screen. When Gravity came out, astronomers laughed at a bunch of the science, but in the end, it still gave them great amount of publicity, they didn’t make that huge of a fuss over it. It’s a sci fi movie. Laugh it off and move on. As scientists, we always feel like it is somehow our job to be upset about how our precious baby of a science is portrayed on the big screen. We look for any excuse we can to hate it. If it is not scientific accuracy, it is talking dinosaurs, or whatever else. We feel like we need to pretend to hate the idea of another monster dinosaur movie when in fact it is A FREAKING DINOSAUR MOVIE AND PEOPLE WILL LOVE DINOSAURS AGAIN. And the fact of the matter is you are STILL going to go watch it and you are STILL going to enjoy every minute of it, even if all you talk about is your disdain for it. Because it is a dinosaur movie. Museums will have much better attendance when this movie comes out. I guarantee it. And when people go to museums, it is our job to tell them what dinosaurs were really like. It is our job to show them the real fossils. 

To refer to the audience as a “dumbed-down public” because of how they see dinosaurs in movies is incredibly unfair. The more we refer to them as “dumb”, the more they will revolt and want more kaiju-sized monsters instead of real dinosaurs. They are not “dumbed-down”. In fact, it makes them ask questions about it. And WE are the people they ask! That’s the beauty of it! What better way to get the general public to ask us more questions and get interested in dinosaurs! People haven't really said anything bad about how the dinosaurs and mosasaurs are way too huge in the trailer. Or the fact that Gallimimus looks nothing like it did in the original Jurassic Park. Or the fact that Apatosaurus is probably holding its neck wrong. All people really care about is the lack of feathers. Jurassic Park is not a documentary. We need to stop thinking of it as one. There's way too much negativity, I feel, about something that is ultimately really good for a field, no matter how much it strays away from the science. 
Mosasaur from Jurassic World trailer. Holy shit, its huge.
So. Since everyone is always so upset about anything in any dinosaur movie ever, I propose we all work together to create the best plot for a dinosaur movie and pitch it. Something completely new and different to Jurassic Park. If we think we can do better and constantly complain about how dinosaur movies COULD be better, then let’s take matters into our own hands and pitch an idea as paleontologists. We will never be satisfied unless we communicate it the right way proactively, especially when we judge a movie from just one trailer.

Until then, let me bask in my excitement for trained Velociraptors and motorcycles and watch the damn movie in peace when it comes out.

Velociraptors and motorcycles. And Chris Pratt. On the motorcycle.